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Particulars of Christianity:
305 Liberty in Christ

What is Observing Times?

Liberty in Christ: Extended Introduction
Liberty in Christ: Introduction

Definitions and New Testament Survey
Synonyms for Liberty in Christ
Liberty and Death
Liberty, the Law, and the 10 Commandments
Origin of the Law of Liberty
Liberty and Yet Prohibition
Incorporating Pagan Practices in the Old Testament
"Christianizing" Pagan Practices
What is Observing Times?
Liberty, Bondage, and Righteousness
Liberty and Meat Sacrificed to Idols
Liberty and 1 Corinthians 8
Liberty, 1 Corinthians 10, and Idolatry
Liberty, 1 Corinthians 10, and Your Neighbor
Summary and Practical Applications
Addendum: Romans 14, the Conscience, and Morality

It is very important to understand the historical backdrop for the phrase "observing times" mentioned in Galatians 4:10 and how this phrase relates to the idea that Paul is condemning Christians for incorporating the holidays of the pagan into their Christian lives. We might begin by noting that in Galatians 4, Paul describes this “observance of times” as a form of “bondage.”

Galatians 4:8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. 9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

We covered 1 Corinthians 10 earlier in this study. And in Paul’s commentary, he warns the Corinthians believers that participation with idols is fellowshipping with devils. And he concludes this language with the rhetorical question, “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?”

1 Corinthians 10:19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? 20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. 21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils. 22 Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?

Paul's use of the phrase "do we provoke the Lord to jealousy" with regard to the idolatry and the partaking of pagan sacrificial meals is a perfect parallel the phrase "provoke the LORD to anger," used throughout the Old Testament to refer to various forms of idolatry. Furthermore, Paul's use of the word "jealousy" instead of anger is not a mistake. Paul no doubt used the word "jealousy" because it was the exact word used by God himself when giving the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20.

Exodus 20:2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

Notice that in verse 2, God refers to Egypt as the "house of bondage." No wonder Paul is borrowing this idea of "bondage" and "slavery" with regard to pagan practices in Galatians 4. Notice also verse 4’s mention of the “likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.” But more importantly, in verse 5, God declares that the reason the Israelites are forbidden from idolatry is that God is "a jealous God."

The particular relevance this has to Galatians 4 can be outlined as follows. In Galatians 4, Paul refers to bondage. But does he mean bondage to the Law of Moses, as he does elsewhere? Or is he now referring to bondage to false gods or sin in general? By looking a 1 Corinthians 10, we have seen that idolatry was associated in Exodus 20 with very early warnings about God’s jealousy regarding the worship of other gods. And in Exodus 20, we have also seen a very early and fundament association in the 10 Commandments between worshipping other gods and bondage. This provides us with a cultural footing to for the notion that Galatians 4 is referring to bondage in terms of pagan idolatry, not bondage to the Law of Moses.

But, in practical terms, what was this observing of times. Well, from Paul's description in Galatians 4:10, we see that "observing times" involved observing regular feast days that were originally pagan on a monthly, seasonal, or annual basis. So, on what grounds did the pagans establish these feast days unto their false gods?

First, we can see that in Deuteronomy, service to false gods was considered closely associated with worshipping heavenly bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars.

Deuteronomy 4: 19 And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. 20 But the LORD hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.

As we saw, Exodus 20 connected the worship of false gods in part to the idea of “likenesses of things in heaven.” Here in Deuteronomy 4, we have an expansion on that concept. Verse 19 refers to the Israelites lifting up their eyes to the heavens and being driven to worship and “serve” the sun, moon, stars, and “all the host of heaven.” Moreover, in verse 20 we even see the familiar reference to servitude and bondage in Egypt just as we saw in Exodus 20.

Here we can see very early in Jewish culture the association between bondage to false gods and a fascination with heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars. Furthermore, the Israelites were also known to have wanted to return to bondage to the false gods of Egypt shortly after the Exodus and shortly after they had received the Law of Moses. We see this reflected in the Book of Joshua.

Joshua 24:14 Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD.

This is the cultural backdrop for the language Paul uses in Galatians 4. God had given the Israelites a covenant (the Law of Moses) and they had a desire to return to serve the gods of the nations, including the Egyptians and more significantly including worship oriented toward “looking up” at heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars. Paul is clearly concerned that his Christian audience, having recently become part of God’s people through the New Covenant of Christ, were also turning back to service to false gods as he says plainly in Galatians 4:8. And this return to pagan practices was chiefly manifest in what Paul refers to as “observing days, months, times, and years” in Galatians 4:10.

We see this pagan practice of devotion oriented toward the heavenly bodies described by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs [0226] of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

At this point it is no surprise that this verse begins with God commanding his people not to learn the ways of the pagans, even as Deuteronomy 12 commands God's people not to practice the ways of the pagans unto the LORD God. However, here in Jeremiah we also find the peculiar statement that the "heathen are dismayed at the signs of heaven." And God tells his people Israel not to be "dismayed at the signs of heaven." But what does this phrase, "the signs of heaven" mean?

Well, this is an obvious reference all the way back to the beginning in Genesis 1.

Genesis 1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs [0226], and for seasons [4150], and for days, and years: 15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. 19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Here on the fourth day, God makes the sun, the moon, and the stars. He sets them "in the heavens" and makes them to be "signs" for "seasons, and for days, and years." Notice that the word for "signs" is the same Hebrew word both in Jeremiah 10:2 and Genesis 1:14. It is the word "owth" (Strong's No. 0226), and it means simply, "a signal or sign." Notice also that the word for "season" in Genesis 1:14 is the Hebrew word "mowÔed" (Strong's No. 4150), which primarily means an "appointed time." And finally, notice that these signs, which the sun, moon, and stars were set in the heavens to mark were set to mark "seasons (times), days, and years." This is exactly the phrase used by Paul in Galatians 4:10, where he writes concerning the Galatians' return to pagan bondage, "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years."

So, what does it mean to observe times? As both Jeremiah 10, Genesis 1, and Galatians 4 attest, the observing of times was the setting of pagan holy days to serve their false gods according to the movements of the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens. Clearly, Paul did not want the Christian Galatians incorporating into their Christian lives the pagan holidays that were set according to pagan observations of the movements of the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens.

This has been a rather lengthy section to our study of Christian liberty, but what we can conclude from it is clear. First, not only did Paul and the apostles uphold the Old Testament ban against eating blood, but they also upheld the Old Testament ban on incorporating pagan practices into the worship of God that was mentioned right alongside the eating of blood in Deuteronomy 12. And second, when the apostles including Paul, spoke of our "liberty in Christ" they did NOT mean we were now free "in Christ" to incorporate pagan worship practices into our service the LORD God.

But we still have a little more ground left yet to cover. Near to the beginning of this study, we stated that the meaning of the phrase "liberty in Christ" was threefold. We have covered the first two aspects of this already. We also stated that in attempting to find out what it meant to have "liberty in Christ," we were in essence answering the questions of what this liberty made us free FROM and free TO DO.

With regard to the first aspect of this threefold conclusion, we have shown that Paul's use of the phrase "liberty in Christ" in Galatians 2, where some visiting Christians from Jerusalem tried to enslave the Galatians to Jewish dietary Laws, referred to our "liberty FROM" the Law of Moses. However, we have also shown from a whole host of New Testament passages that despite this freedom from the Law of Moses, the New Testament authors considered the 10 Commandments to still be binding on Christians because the 10 Commandments were included in the Law of Christ, which is also referred to in James 1:25 and 2:12 as the "Law of Liberty. " (Acts 15:5-6,19-20,23,29 and 21:25, Ephesians 6:1-3, 1 Corinthians 5:10-11 and 6:9, 1 Corinthians 10:7,14, Ephesians 5:5, Galatians 5:19, Romans 13:9, Revelation 21:8 and 22:15, Ephesians 4:28, 2 Peter 2:4, and James 2:7 as well as Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31, and Luke 10:27.)

In this way we established that the first of three aspects of our "liberty in Christ" is that we are free FROM all of the Law of Moses except 9 out of the 10 Commandments (since according to Romans 14 Christians are no longer obligated to keep the Sabbath days.)

With regard to the second aspect of this threefold conclusion, we have shown that Paul's use of the phrases "liberty in Christ" (Galatians 2:4), "Law of the Spirit" (Romans 8:2), and "Law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2) are all synonymous with James use of the phrases "Law of Liberty" (James 1:25, 2:12) and "royal Law" (James 2:8.) Thus, when Paul writes in Romans 8:2 that "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death," Paul is demonstrating the "liberty in Christ" means we are free FROM the legally prescribed punishment of death. In this way we established the second aspect of our threefold conclusion regarding our "liberty in Christ."

(For a more detailed examination showing that Galatians 4 is referring to Gentile holidays, please see the addendum outline entitled, “Liberty Addendum.”)